His challenge was how to interpret the iconic brand in an authentic, artful way; how to introduce a store in a neighborhood tilted toward both commerce and creativity.
Eight gallons of paint and 15 brushes later, witness the façade of the new Louis Vuitton store in the Design District — a watercolor veil of teals, pinks and purples by the celebrated graffiti writer.
Louis Vuitton commissioned Marquis Lewis, known as RETNA, to create an original work on the building’s exterior walls, a first for the luxury brand. He delivered with a distinctly Miami palette and reinterpreted the Louis Vuitton name in his signature hieroglyphics, a style informed by ancient global cultures.
“Using their store’s exterior as a canvas for street art is exceptional and truly inspiring for me as an artist,” says RETNA, 33, who also designed a complementary scarf to be sold on store shelves.
Drawn to the energy and vibrancy of gang graffiti, RETNA — a name adopted from a Wu-Tang Clan track — picked up his first spray can at 9 years old. He spent his formative years perfecting the art of graffiti, painting freeway overpasses and bridges throughout his native Los Angeles.
RETNA’s art form is complex, wrought with stories, and almost always including his own alphabet, born of a hybrid of global influences: Incan, Egyptian, Asian, Hebrew and Arabic and Native American visual writings, hieroglyphic and ink calligraphy.
It wasn’t long before the art world took notice. Last year, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles featured RETNA’s work in its Art in the Streets exhibit. Calling RETNA’s work fresh and effortless, MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch compared the artist to a great jazz musician who “improvises within a framework.’’
RETNA is currently showing an exhibit of paintings, works on paper and a site-specific installation at the Michael Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles.
Here in Miami, his newest creation celebrates the arrival of Louis Vuitton in the Design District.
Louis Vuitton opened Friday in a temporary store; it will be replaced by a permanent location in the neighborhood in 2014.
“We are thrilled with the opportunity to collaborate with RETNA, an artist whose work blurs the lines between beauty and edge,” said Valérie Chapoulaud-Floquet, president and chief executive officer of Louis Vuitton North America. “The Design District, an area pulsing with artistic, innovative and creative energy, is a natural home for Louis Vuitton and we look forward to sharing RETNA’s extraordinary work with the neighborhood.”
The label, founded in 1854, has almost always blurred the lines between art, fashion and design, working with artists across disciplines.
When Marc Jacobs became the brand’s artistic director in 1997, he invited contemporary artists to collaborate, among them Richard Prince, Takashi Murakami and the late Stephen Sprouse, who all treated the iconic monogram as muse. But it’s not just purses, bags and accessories that have received the artistic treatment: The canvas has taken the form of site-specific installations, store window designs and art exhibits.
On the eighth day of RETNA’s project, in the whirl of painting, he claimed a seat on steps inside the Moore Building and chatted with The Miami Herald.
Q. So, you get the opportunity to create a mural for the façade for Louis Vuitton. What is your inspiration?
I have a lot of respect for the brand, in particular its work with art and artists. I wanted to work with colors that would represent Miami. I have seen a lot of the teal and pinks around here. I almost wanted it to be something that was inspiring and elegant. The white lettering I did in my [signature] style.
Q. This is not your first project in Miami. Tell us about the other local works.
Right around here I have a few things. I have a total of six murals in the city right now. I did my first mural as part of the Primary Flight project. I also have one at the entrance to the highway [Interstate 95 near the Design District] you can see one of my works. I am also part of the Wynwood Walls. There is also a mural on the Margulies wall.
Q. How did you end up pursuing this as a career?
I still remember as child seeing the graffiti on freeways and in the neighborhood where I grew up. It was very bright and made me feel happy. I didn’t know at the time it was illegal, I just knew there was something about it that I was drawn to. The fonts were so bold and territorial, you would ride through the neighborhoods and really see the power of that style of writing. My first real stuff was done in Inglewood. Basically they were names. From there I transitioned to doing things more artistic.
Q. Your work offers a distinct element. What inspired the lettering, which borrows from the Old English fonts of newspapers, like The Los Angeles Times, and ancient letters and symbols?
I was fascinated with the ancient languages and with architecture. I would see it in books or on temples. I wasn’t trying to understand it or read it or speak it, I was interested in the structure of the letters, the look of the words. It was the formation of those letters that helped the way I thought about the writing and found its way into my work.
Q. Did you take the street art to the gallery world or did the gallery world find you?
A little of both. I didn’t know much about the gallery world, but I had a lot of mentors who helped me. And then I was invited to exhibit my works on canvas my work at the 01 Gallery.
Q. How do you see yourself or define your work?
I am a graffiti writer and a fine artist. I come from the lineage of street writers, but my work has evolved into that of fine art. I just want to be taken as a serious artist.